The Pushcart Man
by Tiffany Andersen
On some road in some place, on a day not worth mentioning, the pushcart man sold his wares. He rolled his produce cart down the busy street, his face an aged blur to passers-by. The cart’s faded green and yellow awning billowed slightly against a bracing February wind. Joints squeaked and wheels shook as it ambled over ruts in the winter-damaged road. He plodded gently behind the mobile shop, exerting little effort. Years of revolving wheels and busy streets had made his day much like anyone else’s: routine.
He stopped at a crossroads and watched the foot traffic pass for a moment. So many of them, he thought, will need this produce. Sucking in his leathery cheeks, he inhaled a deep smoky gasp and tapped his cigarette between thumb and forefinger. On the exhale, the pushcart man began his song.
He sang of need, of fruit, of enduring over-ripeness. He sang of temptation.
Few who passed moved slowly enough to catch the words. It was more a feeling, a tightening in their chests, a pull deep in a neglected place, a tickle behind the ear, that made them falter for just a moment. The procession continued, unabated. The man waited.
It was luck, or chance, or providence, who cares, that caused her to be idling near the intersection that morning. Twenty minutes prior, she had been facing a crisis of monumental proportions, a catastrophic event that would shape her life forever. But it was over, and she was done, and she did not want to be bothered with anything much the rest of the day, and in the grand scheme of things anyway, it really didn’t matter.
When she saw the pushcart for the first time, the green and yellow awning riding the wooden frame bareback against the wind, she paused to admire its form. She would have paused anyway. There was a pebble in her shoe. She watched as winter tried to shake the awning free, dislodge it from its perch. She watched as it gripped tightly, determined to remain with the man and the cart and this street corner. She paused and she decided she needed some fruit.
On her approach, the pushcart man dropped his cigarette, releasing a spattering of glowing embers to a northern wind. He nodded his greeting, swallowed the rest of his song, and pointed to his cart. “Overripe fruit,” he said, and smiled. His teeth were white and straight and even, a milky oasis in the craggy desert of his weathered face.
She looked over the boxes carefully, momentarily confused. The produce was not what she’d expected. Blackened bananas lay in heaps on the left. Soggy grapes twisted vine through vine in a tangled gray orgy. Pumpkins spilled their seeds through deep gashes in the flesh, holes caved painfully inward. The apples lay shriveled and small, formerly vixenish, now just a reminder of how far they’d traveled from summer. Every available space in the cart’s deep wooden trough was overrun with mangled produce, fruit uneaten and left to rot. And it was for sale.
She placed her small cold hand against the cart’s painted wooden crossbeam, feeling the prickles of old green paint rise and dislodge beneath her palm. She watched as chips of color tumbled from the pads of her fingers and were snatched from her sight by the naked wind.
She glanced at her shoe, feeling the irritant of pebble between her fourth and fifth toe, a prisoner inside her woolen sock. She imagined herself as that pebble, warm and safe and needing air. She prodded the curb with her leather heel, feeling the little rock skitter beneath the heavy arch of her foot. She considered everything. Except the fruit.
She would not consider the fruit.
“Shall I sing for you?” the man asked.
“Will it hurt?” she replied, and wondered why she’d come.
The man lit another cigarette in answer and began his song once more.
She focused on the pebble and its roundness. Its smallness. Its irritating existence.
She considered the pebble most of all.
The song finished, he placed a hardened knuckle beneath her chin, gently turning her face toward the unconsiderable fruit. Its rawness burned in her eyes, swimming in the pearly pool around her iris. She perused the fruit once more, her gaze fondling the produce, feeling the pits and skin and bumps of sliding slime and dry cores.
She considered the fruit.
She extended an arm, released the tension of the elbow, and uncurled stiff fingers. He placed a peach inside her palm. Its sticky meat lay near-unprotected beneath the paper-thin skin and faded fuzz. She felt the pulp churn softly inside.
“A moment before,” the man remarked, “it was perfection.” She glanced at him for a flash, unwilling to take her eyes off the dying peach in her hand. “Fruit is always at its sweetest the instant before it becomes overripe. It’s not rot you see; it’s the price of living.”
She nodded in understanding, removed her shoe, and handed him the pebble.
“Keep the change.”
“Same to you.”
As night drifted softly in from the west, the pushcart man continued his journey east. Another town, another day, another indifference. There will be more fruit tomorrow.
Copyright © 2008 by Tiffany Andersen